Features | Concerts

Constantines w/ Oxford Collapse and Coffinberry

By Clayton Purdom | 25 July 2005

This was supposed to be an interview.

I should’ve known something was awry when the doorman took a long look at the guest list and found no mention of me. I chalked that up to some sort of communication breakdown, paid my $10 and went in.

I was willing to pay. Since the Constantines’ last show in Cleveland, I had heard nothing but wild-eyed endorsements from my friends, heartfelt testimonials with the type of enthusiastic zeal generally found in religious converts. Their show at the Grog Shop in 2003 is held in the same esteem among local scenesters as, say, that sweat-soaked early Hives show at the Beachland Ballroom from ’01. In a post-industrial sewer like Cleveland, where a popular local beer is actually called Burning River, the Constantines are something of an adopted town band.

Yeah, they’re Canadian. We don’t care. That old line on the Constantines—that they’re a cross between Fugazi and Springsteen—couldn’t play more to the blue-collar fury at the heart of the city that played a role in the births of industrial music and punk rock. That much-echoed querry, “Can I get a witness?” meets its thunderous affirmation in the coldest city on the Great Lakes.

So I paid my $10 unflinchingly, hesitant only because of the suspicion that maybe this interview I had bragged about wouldn’t go through. I had been informed through an email that I was to ask at the merchandise table for someone named Agatha who would hopefully lead me to the band. When a woman began unloading t-shirts onto a folding table in the rear of the bar, I asked her if she was Agatha.

She was Agatha. Agatha was a British woman in a light green dress with curly black hair; her beauty was epic, and, when I get a chance, I’m going to write a poem about her. She seemed as puzzled by my presence as the doorman. I told her I’d talked to the band’s publicist, which was a lie: my editor had. I was just making shit up as I went, and Agatha, that shrewd beauty, saw through my ruse.

“How much time do you want?”

“Uh, as much as they’ll give me,” I said. Then, thinking more solidly, “Twenty minutes would be nice.”

She looked at me. “I’ll see,” she said, and was off. She came back later and told me that the band’s keyboard player would come in the room and meet me. I assumed this meant he would lead me to the rest of the band. I was wrong.

My friends knew from the outset that I wasn’t going to get the interview I longed for. They were unkind. When they realized I was going to be interviewing the keyboard player and that all of my planned questions were useless, they laid out a host of eligible new ones:

“So, not good at guitar, huh?”
“If you were a guitarist, how would you respond to the following question . . .”
“Why does Bry Webb sound like the Boss?”
“Do you ever feel like you don’t really exist?”

And so forth. My friends are pretty mean people. They turned out to be right, though: keyboardist Will Kidman turned out to be my final interview subject, and it went as well as an interview with a keyboard player could possibly be expected to go. Example:

CMG: I heard that your new album, Tournament of Hearts, was inspired by women’s curling. Is there some sort of spiritual kinship between women’s curling and your music? Has it influenced the sound or theme of the new album at all?

WK: We’re all big fans of curling. We’re all big fans of women’s curling. (Pause) We were watching a lot of women’s curling then.

So I didn’t get much out of him. Maybe it’s because he’s the keyboardist; maybe it’s because he’s Canadian. I’m not sure. I have little experience with either musicians or Canadians. Still, the entire situation left me with only two possible conclusions about the Constantines, and that’s that either:

A) Every member of the band but Will Kidman was delayed for some reason that night, and they had absolutely no way to get to me in time for the interview, leading me to wonder why there hasn’t been an ongoing criminal investigation into whoever sabotaged their tour bus; or

B) They don’t care about the Glow. Which is fucked.

Regardless, I missed most of adorable hometown heroes Coffinberry, who performed an ecstatic opening set in celebration of the release of their very first CD (which is pretty good, actually). The Oxford Collapse proved more than capable of translating the nervous emo anthemics of their impressive debut to a live setting, though I’ll admit that my impression of them was significantly bettered by the facts that their lead singer looked like the dad from Capturing the Friedmans and their bass player unironically busted out some of the funkiest fucking dance moves I’ve ever seen.

But I’d come for the Constantines. I’d come to be baptized with fire by the holy Canadian saviors of rock and roll. I’d come to be saved.

I’ll be blunt: on July 15, the Constantines put on one of the best shows I’ve seen in my life, easily surpassing some of the best bands of our time (Radiohead, the White Stripes, pre-Maladroit Weezer) and putting on a concert that lands among those precious few other times I’d walked into a smoky club and left a sweat-soaked acolyte of some new band’s Gospel.

The highlights were numerous. Actually, the highlights were unceasing. Every song that the Constantines played was an urgent, ardent reminder of the redemptive powers of music, easily justifying all of the ridiculously hyperbolic statements (see: the first half of this sentence) that critics have spewed into print since the release of Shine a Light. The songs from that album played strongest, bringing out the noisy romanticism of the guitar parts like an orange blot of streetlight seen through a haze of cigarette smoke. The Boss-like bluster of “Young Lions” was a communal affirmation, “Tank Commander” felt like a the onset of a heart attack, and “Nighttime/Anytime” hit like a sledgehammer, a shuddering, devastating performance that left the audience shaken.

Of course, that audience consisted of about 30 people. The venue was small to begin with, relegated from the larger, more appropriate Beachland Ballroom to the bottom-tier Beachland Tavern next door for no apparent reason. But Cleveland put forth an awful showing that night, especially for a band so often pointed to in local circles as the burning core of musical truth. The tiny, dingy bar wasn’t even packed, and except for a smattering of howling enthusiasts (this writer included) at the front of the crowd, much of their performance fell on deaf ears.

So when the band ripped through tracks from the forthcoming Tournament of Hearts, like the stunning “Love in Fear” or the mystic, thumping “You Are a Conductor,” a fourth of the crowd stood in rapt awe while the rest bought new drinks and bummed cigarettes and tried to get laid. For his part, Bry Webb (who looks nothing like the Boss, really!) radiated an easy jocularity, offering t-shirts for drugs and asking after one particularly sound-addled song, “Was that tinny enough for everyone? Can we bring up the tinny-ness a little bit?”

I guess I expected to see Fugazi. I guess I expected a sermon. That this band was playing to such a mildly receptive crowd and still performing with such fervency is a testament to the their strength. In light of all this, the band’s rock and roll elegy “Arizona” put me on the verge of tears. I saw the death of rock and roll. For those of us that were ready and receptive to it, though, the Constantines brought just the type of hard-won vivacity that was expected of them. The staccato intensity of set-closer “Scoundrel Babes” stayed with us for days, lingering unexpectedly in the same way that when lying in bed after a day spent in the ocean you can still feel the undertow.

Looking over the transcript of my largely unusable interview, one part sticks out as relevant. I had been asking Kidman about the band’s tendency to collaborate with opening acts, and their reputation as a band that relies on audience participation. My comment to him was that there seems to be a thread of community that runs through all of these things, and I asked him where that came from.

He responded, “Well, it’s like when we were working with our friends at Three Gut (Records), right? There’s a sense of comfort in that. It’s fulfilling to spend your days hanging out with friends because those are the kind of people who inspire you to keep (making music). And the same goes with our shows. We all come from playing shows in small-town Ontario. The only way those kind of shows would work is just people coming together and hanging out and having a good time, and loving life. So that’s not gonna change if our band gets to do things and play in bigger spaces; it doesn’t mean that all of a sudden we’re a different band. We wrote all of our songs in spaces and weird places. To try to translate that in different rooms is hard, but it still fundamentally carries. We’re not gonna become different people.”

Then, as if remembering something, he added, “I dunno. I’m not a very good interview, really.”